Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The SNAP Cookbook

After completing my Reverse SNAP Challenge last month, I thought to Google the phrase and see whether anyone else had also attempted this particular twist on the standard SNAP Challenge. I didn't find anyone who had, but my search led me to someone else who has come to many of the same conclusions I did about eating healthy on a SNAP budget. Canadian-born Leanne Brown, who moved to New York City to pursue a masters in food studies, was unimpressed with our country's food aid program, finding it less flexible than the assistance offered in Canada. She found that a lot of people relying on SNAP were eating a carb-heavy diet with lots of processed foods, but when she went looking for resources online about how to make healthy choices on a SNAP budget, everything she found was either "very governmental" or "too preachy." She concluded that "an appealing, tasty, practical, healthy set of recipes" would be a big help to many SNAP beneficiaries.

Her solution is Good and Cheap, a collection of recipes that's available online in PDF form at no charge. Since many people who use SNAP don't have Internet access at home, Brown also raised $145,000 through Kickstarter to make the book available in print form to those who need it. The print version isn't out yet, but you can pre-order copies on her website. She's set up a special pricing system so that you can buy your own copy for $20, but for a little extra, you can also donate copies to people who need them: $25 to donate one copy, $29 for two, and $100 for ten. (I must admit, I don't quite understand this price structure: the price per donation starts out at $5 for one copy, drops to $4.50 each for two, and then suddenly shoots up to $8 each for ten, which makes it far less efficient to donate multiple copies. It seems like the best use of money would be to make three $29 donations, so you could donate six books at $4.50 each, keep one copy for yourself, and give two as gifts. Nonprofits can order the books in bulk for $4 per copy, which coincidentally is the amount it costs to feed one person for one day with the recipes in the book.)

According to this article about Brown on the NPR blog "The Salt," one of the things that makes this cookbook special is its emphasis on flexibility, with "lots of options for substitutions, especially when it comes to the produce aisle, where prices can fluctuate based on season and availability." Brown says in the introduction to the book that her recipes "use ingredients common to most low-income New York City neighborhoods," but what's common in New York might not be common in Atlanta or Des Moines, so they also "encourage substitution based on availability, taste, and price." Brown doesn't always stick to cheap ingredients, either: paging through Good and Cheap, I found recipes that called for olives, fresh mozzarella, and shallots (though with this one she allowed for the substitution of an equivalent volume of onion). However, these high-end ingredients are minor components of the recipes, used to add flavor; the bulk of the ingredients are fresh veggies and grains. She gives an estimated price for each recipe, both in total and per serving, and it's rare for any dish to price out at more than $1.50 per serving even with the pricey ingredients. Substitute cheaper ones, and you could spend even less. Many of her recipes are variations on a basic dish, like oatmeal (13 cents a serving) or popcorn (25 cents), which allow you to eat the same inexpensive breakfast or snack for days on end without tiring of it. (Of course, I eat popcorn with just a touch of olive oil and salt every day and haven't tired of it yet, but many people crave more variety.)

One thing I found particularly interesting about Good and Cheap is that Brown seems to have come to many of the same conclusions I reached about healthy eating on a budget at the end of my Reverse SNAP Challenge. For instance, I noted that "a cheap diet tends to be heavy on grains, light on meat," and this description fits most of the recipes in her cookbook. While it includes a few meat-centered dishes, like roast chicken and pulled pork, the bulk of her recipes "celebrate the vegetables rather than the meat." She also emphasizes the importance of cooking at home, saying "Kitchen skill, not budget, is the key to great food." And, like me, she recognizes that food availability is essential to eating well on a budget, which is why she designed her recipes to be flexible and allow for substitutions.

I downloaded Brown's book as soon as I discovered it, and so far we've tried two recipes from it. The first was her "Cold (Spicy?) Noodles," which appealed to me because it's heavy on cucumber, something we're dealing with a bumper crop of at the moment. She says to use one large cucumber to 12 ounces of noodles, but I think it could have taken even more cucumber without difficulty. Of the optional "additions" the recipe suggested, we chose peanut sauce and shredded carrot. The dish was hearty and flavorful, though both Brian and I agreed that it needed a little more soy sauce. However, perhaps with the optional spice oil, the flavor would have been high enough not to need it. Next time we might just use two chili peppers in the peanut sauce rather than one. This is also one of the few recipes that I think would be better if the cucumbers were peeled, at least partially; there's such a large volume of cucumber in it that the toughness of the skins is a distraction. Still, overall it was a very tasty dish that we felt no guilt about eating our fill of. The recipe claims to serve four, and that seems about right; it made one dinner for the two of us plus two subsequent lunches for me, with just a bit left over for today's lunch.

We also tried her "Brussels Sprout Hash and Eggs," since we happened to have some Brussels sprouts left over in the fridge after cooking a batch of our favorite Roasted Brussels Sprouts last weekend. This recipe calls for olives, which we didn't have and I don't like, so in the spirit of substitution, we compensated by adding a little more garlic and lemon juice. The result was pretty good, but not extraordinary. It's a quick and easy dish to prepare on a weeknight, but it seems like a waste to use Brussels sprouts on it when they could be roasted with garlic (mmm). If it had instead called for some more everyday vegetable, like cabbage, we might have been more impressed with it; as a cabbage recipe, it would be above average, but as a way to prepare sprouts, it pales in comparison to roasting. So perhaps, we'll substitute a little further to try it that way next time and see how we like it.

On the whole, I'm impressed with Good and Cheap, and I intend to try many more of Brown's recipes in the coming weeks. (I've already got some cantaloupe chunks chilling in the freezer at the moment to turn into a Melon Smoothie.) And obviously, you can't beat the price, at least for the free online edition. I have only two quibbles with the PDF version of the cookbook. First, it seems to be rife with copyediting errors: in just the few recipes we've tried so far, Brian and I found missing words that made the meaning ambiguous and ingredients in the ingredient list that the recipe never told you when to add. So I do hope these glitches will get fixed before the final version of the book goes to print.

The other problem with the book is that it's hard to print the recipes out. The whole book is in PDF form, but shrinking a two-page spread to fit onto a single 8.5-by-11 sheet makes the print so tiny it's hard to read, and I haven't found any way of selecting and printing out only one page from a spread. To print the two recipes we've made so far, I ended up copying the text and pasting it into a Word document, and even then I had to fiddle with the text before I could print it because the formatting came out all wonky. So if I enjoy future recipes from this book as much as I have the first two, I'll probably go ahead and spend the $20 for a printed copy—or better yet, $25 for a printed copy and a donated copy or two. (But, unless she fixes the pricing structure, definitely not ten.)
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